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Orange County Voices : COMMENTARY ON POLITICS : County Has Become Model of Reform but Still Has Work to Do : Citizen interest is the key to avoiding excesses in lobbying, campaign contributions and gift giving to officeholders.

May 22, 1994|SHIRLEY GRINDLE | Shirley Grindle is chairman of the TINCUP Campaign Reform Committee. and

In March, 1977, the California Journal labeled Orange County the "Dirty Tricks Capital of California." Indeed, by late 1977, 43 politicians from Orange County (including three supervisors, the county assessor and two congressmen) had been indicted on various charges ranging from laundering of campaign contributions to using county employees as campaign workers on county time. Most of these indictments resulted in embarrassing resignations from office and prison terms for the more flagrant violators.

The nation was also just emerging from the Watergate scandal and Orange County residents were disgusted with the county supervisors who were unable and unwilling to clean up the out-of-control campaign system that got them elected to office. A cross-section of citizens formed a group, TIN CUP (Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics), to reform the system. The result was the adoption in December, 1978, of the county's first campaign finance ordinance.

The TIN CUP ordinance governed county supervisorial elections for more than 13 years and was considered by many in the state to be uniquely effective in broadening the base of contributions, reducing the amount of money collected and spent in supervisorial elections and removing the pressure on developers for campaign contributions.

By 1990, however, political action committees were prominent in federal elections, and several local unscrupulous developers in Orange County were forming their own PACs as a way to avoid the limitations of the TIN CUP ordinance.

The TIN CUP organization decided it was time to tighten up the original campaign ordinance to, among other things, prevent PACs from giving unlimited funds to county supervisors. This was done by creating a comprehensive campaign contribution limitation ordinance that applied not only to the county supervisors but to all the other elected county officials (sheriff-coroner, district attorney, tax collector, etc.)

This time a far more understanding Board of Supervisors (compared to the 1978 board) willingly placed the new campaign ordinance on the ballot. When the final ballots were cast in June, 1992, more than 86% of the voters in Orange County approved the new TIN CUP II ordinance.

In 1992, Orange County once again made headlines with the revelation that a county supervisor and several employees and officials of the Santa Margarita Water District were accepting gifts that were over the limit allowed by state law (and not reporting them as required) from individuals and companies that were either getting projects approved by the Board of Supervisors or were being awarded multimillion-dollar contracts with the water district.

The demise of Supervisor Don Roth, who resigned in disgrace in March, 1993, focused attention on the corruptive influence of gift giving.

Immediately after the resignation of Roth, the TIN CUP organization, along with Orange County Common Cause (the local chapter of the nationwide campaign reform organization) requested the Board of Supervisors to enact a ban on gifts that would put an end to the insidious acceptance of gifts by county employees and elected officials. Much to everyone's surprise, the Board of Supervisors agreed and a gift ban ordinance was subsequently enacted in September, 1993.

Free trips to local resort areas, free golf club memberships, expensive wining and dining at Orange County's most exclusive restaurants and free tickets to sporting events and local entertainment centers are no longer part of the perks of county government.

The Board of Supervisors is to be commended for adopting the first gift ban ordinance in California and for acknowledging publicly what the public has always known--that the wining and dining of government officials is a practice that casts doubt on the credibility of government decisions and contract awards, and destroys confidence in our political system by reinforcing the public's view that government officials are on the take.

The third act of "cleansing" Orange County politics was the board's passage, albeit reluctantly, of a code of ethics in late 1993.

The most important part of these policies and guidelines is the "revolving door" provision that prevents a former county employee or official from returning to lobby county officials within one year.

This provision was considered crucial in reducing insider influence of former aides to the supervisors, who return as lobbyists hired by developers, architects and engineers who need a project approved or who are seeking a contract award.

Most county observers would agree that many of the publicly funded major contracts awarded in the past 10 years have been substantially influenced by those lobbyists, who have great contacts with board offices (former aides). A number of local civil engineering and architectural firms still believe it is impossible to win a sizable contract in Orange County without hiring a lobbyist.

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